Young@Heart (review)

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Sing It Loud

“I’m never gonna complain about being too old and too tired again!” exclaims a young woman — well, one a good deal younger than 80, at least — in Young@Heart. She’s just seen a performance by the Young at Heart Chorus, a gang of octogenarians who tour America and Europe belting out rock and roll songs, and she’s absolutely right: no matter what your age, you cannot come away from this charming and inspiring documentary about the group and not vow to never, ever give up on life, or on anything you really want to do, no matter what great age you manage to achieve.
And actually, 80 is merely the average age of the members of Young at Heart, which means that some of them are younger than that… which means that some of them are barely older than, say, Keith Richards or Paul McCartney, whose songs are exactly the kind of thing the chorus would perform, in their own uniquely harmonic way. Which becomes an ironic undertone to British documentarian Steven Walker’s theme: that “age” — in that euphemistic way the word is used to mean “decrepitly ancient” — is all a matter of perspective. We might allow ourselves some shock when smacked in the face with exactly how advanced in years some of our legendary rockers have gotten, but it seems like a stretch to call them “elderly.” So why do we allow ourselves to apply the term to others? It’s the unspoken question that is challenged, with delightful and rousing results, here.

Walker explains here that he attended a Young at Heart concert in England and was so enraptured with the Massachusetts-based group that he was moved to make a film about them, and this is it. Originally destined for British TV, Young@Heart has a kind of cosy television quality to it: it plays like a human-interest news report, Walker’s own enchanted narration betraying an utter lack of jounalistic distance… and thank god for that. He’s in love with these people: Such as Eileen, 92, an absolute pip and an incorrigible flirt, who enjoys belting out songs by the likes of Coldplay and Sonic Youth because it “keeps [her] brain going.” (The film opens with her performance of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and I challenge anyone to try resisting singing along with her.) And Bob, who prefers opera and classic music but takes on the Talking Head’s “Life During Wartime” and James Brown tunes because, he says, “I’m trying to expand my horizons.” And Walker’s enthusiasm is utterly infectious: he makes us fall in love with them, too.

Bob Cilman, the chorus’s director — himself a mere child in his early fifties — is a bit of taskmaster, the chorus seems to agree, and they’re not always thrilled with the songs he choose for them (they’re struggling to conquer Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” through much of the film). But Cilman, too, is a wonder, refusing to give in to the all-too-prevalent attitude that the “elderly” must be babied and coddled: he pushes them to push themselves, and they’re happy to do so.

Of course, the Young at Heartsters are of a certain age, and no one here denies that: not Cilman, not the singers, not Walker. As the film reaches its climax, two former members of the chorus return after long illnesses to perform special songs at a special performance, and it becomes clear that there’s a point beyond which the mind, no matter how willing, cannot keep up with the body. Which lends another layer of heartfelt poignancy to the gentle lesson on offer here: Do what ya gotta do, because our days are numbered whether we do them or not.

So there’s sadness here, but it cannot dent the joy. And that is a beautiful thing.

[Visit the official Web site of the Young at Heart Chorus — they may be performing near you soon!]

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